Letting imagination win

August 8

(Samantha Shanley)

Every summer, my extended family gathers at my parents’ lake house on an island surrounded by birch trees, loons, beavers, and bass.

When the cousins congregate, my children included, the personality traits they’ve inherited from their parents become as obvious and dear to all of us as the dappled light that bounces off the lake water, through the trees, and into the living room.

This is especially true when the family—stocked with a variety of A-types—dips into the hallowed game cabinet.

“Is this a game I can win?” someone asks.

It is always hard for me to watch my kids getting mowed down by the competition, but like me, they’re more interested in playing than they are in winning. While others are slapping their aces down in the discard pile, racing toward the finish, my daughter holds her hands in the air, calling out,

“Wait! That’s not fair!”

She’s checking to see if everyone is following the rules, but they’re already at the end of the game, arguing about who got there first.

At 8 and 6 years old, my daughter and oldest son prefer to pick out the pawns from board games and use these figures for imaginary role-play rather than play the games themselves. This drives my mother crazy, and not just because the kids also use her antique water bird decoys as super villains.

“Aren’t they a little old for this?” my mother asks, exasperated and reaching under the couch to capture roving tokens from Clue and Monopoly, setting the games back in their proper boxes “for the umpteenth time today!”

The truth is that my children are not too old for it at all. Nor are they too old for those evening song and dance numbers in which anyone over the age of 21 is required to sit in a row, sweaty thigh to sweaty thigh, while the children put on a variety show after little to no rehearsal.

Technically, this only goes well if each adult has a glass of rosé in hand. But as with all those traditional board games, my kids are happier with the process than they are with the polished-chrome end result.

On a rainy afternoon after I had banished my three children from the game cabinet, hoping to keep them from strewing the contents again, my 8-year-old had had enough. She pulled out a box of markers, a ream of construction paper, and a small pair of blunt-end scissors.

“I’m making my own game,” she said merrily. I cringed, anticipating the mess. Even so, I let her be because I was about to take my two sons out to hunt for mushrooms.

When the three of us returned later, soaked, my daughter was still working.

She finished just before dinner.

“Who wants to play my game?” she asked excitedly.

My sister raised her hand but I balked.

“This is going to take a while,” I warned, motioning toward the dinner table, which was set and ready.

My hesitation was fair—my daughter is a rule monger, after all. I imagined the adults needing more wine and patience for her game than they would for a cousin-led variety show. I also wondered whether other children would engage in her type of play. Still, my daughter needs to learn how to shine in her own light.

“C’mon,” my sister said, picking up her baby and heading for the game table. I followed.

My daughter read the set of rules she’d laid out in marker and crayon on her official instruction sheet.

“It’s called, ‘Witch’s Pot,’” she started.

My sister and I grinned at each other.

The object of the game was to make a potion. Each player was to roll the die, move her pawn forward on the board, and draw a card that listed an ingredient to add to her cauldron—a plastic cereal bowl.

The ingredients themselves were charming, all made of paper. There were petite cherries with tiny stems; a cluster of sea foam bubbles; a mermaid’s scale; goblins’ tears; musical notes representing the song of a nightingale; cloud wisps; a maple leaf; and jars of sugar and cinnamon, to be shared by way of a communal spoon.

“Wow—that’s some incredible scissor work!” my sister said, peeping at the trove of paper treasures encircled in my daughter’s arms.

Sitting at the head of the table, my daughter handed each player a small, colorful pawn shaped like a witch hat.

The game began. My 6-year-old yawned after the first round. The rest of us played on, taking turns and adding ingredients to our brews. We snacked on tortilla chips that someone had pilfered from the kitchen. We laughed. We stirred our potions with our fingers. My daughter was satisfied. I felt relieved.

We ran out of cards just before one of us advanced to the end of the board.

“Who wins?” my sister asked.

We looked around the table at each other and shrugged.

The answer was: all of us.

Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.You can follow her on twitter @SimShanley.

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